Center for Media & Democracy

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) is a non-profit watchdog organization dedicated to exposing PR “spin.” Though the group is officially nonpartisan, it labels itself as “progressive” and avoids criticism of liberal organizations in its publications. The group operates the publication PR Watch and a related Wiki-platform SourceWatch, which present the group’s hostile view of free-market organizations.

CMD takes significant sums of money for its work from left-wing foundations, and has even received a half-million dollar donation from one of the country’s largest donor-advised funds—all the while criticizing pro-business or free-market advocacy groups who also use donor advised funds or rely on foundation support.

Left leaning groups are notably absent from negative mention in PR Watch and SourceWatch. While SourceWatch maintains a “tobacco portal” dedicated to exposing links between free-market groups and the tobacco industry, the site neglects to include the thousands of dollars given by the tobacco industry to many labor-affiliated advocacy organizations.

Despite this history of far-left advocacy and funding, media sources often mistakenly cite CMD and its SourceWatch website as independent watchdog organizations.

Background

CMD began primarily as a project of career far-left activists John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, who used CMD as a platform from which to publish a series of books. Since Stauber and Rampton’s retirements, CMD has been run by Lisa Graves, a career Democratic Party and left-liberal activist who previously worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Motivation

When New York City alt-weekly The Village Voice reviewed one of Stauber and Rampton’s books, the publication noted, “These guys come from the far side of liberal.” Twelve years hasn’t changed anything but the nameplates at CMD: The organization is still anti-corporate and far-left. CMD’s staffers come steeped in years of Democratic Party and left-wing advocacy group politics.

  • Executive Director Lisa Graves was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, moving on to serve the Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee under Leahy and as Senior Legislative Strategist for the ACLU.
  • Deputy Director Mary Bottari served as a Press Secretary to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in the late 1990s. She also worked for the Ralph Nader-founded advocacy organization Public Citizen on that group’s anti-free trade projects.
  • Freelance Contributor Beau Hodai has also written for the liberal magazine In These Times and the magazine of anti-corporate media criticism organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Black Eyes

Propped up by Left-Wing Foundations

CMD proudly declares on its website that it accepts “no contributions from for-profit corporations.” Yet, the group has no problem accepting huge grants from progressive foundations.

This history of far-left agitation has earned CMD grants from some of the largest left-leaning foundations including the Foundation to Promote Open Society, part of billionaire currency trader George Soros’s progressive philanthropic empire. The Foundation gave CMD $100,000 in 2010 and another $100,000 in 2011.

The left-leaning Tides Foundation has given CMD $160,000 since 2006, including funding a PR Watch “senior researcher” in 2009 and 2012. The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, another major left-wing foundation which has Lyndon B. Johnson’s former press secretary and PBS host Bill Moyers as its president, gave CMD $250,000 in 2005 and 2006.

In Stauber and Rampton’s day, CMD was directly supported by even more left-wing interests. The duo’s book projects earned grants totaling $47,000 from the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which calls for, among other things, reducing the human population.

Tobacco Connection

SourceWatch has an entire portal dedicated to the Tobacco Industry and its donations to various nonprofits and think tanks. Suspiciously missing from CMD’s research, however, is the Economic Policy Institute. The Tobacco Industry’s Labor Management Committee made annual payments to the Economic Policy Institute in the 1990s and named it one of the Industry’s “allied groups.” But the group’s tobacco ties aren’t mentioned once in any of CMD’s pages dedicated to unveiling funding from the tobacco industry to non-profits and think tanks.

In fact, progressive and labor-affiliated groups are absent from CMD’s tobacco profiles. The groups identified by CMD as having ties to the tobacco industry are those that promote free-market policies.

Watchdog Hypocrisy

CMD is heavily critical of “donor advised funds,” which allow individuals to make a donation to a public charity and then recommend non-profit grant recipients. In particular, CMD attacks DonorsTrust, a fund that donates to organizations dedicated to limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise. CMD has created a SourceWatch entry for DonorsTrust criticizing it for contributing to the “murky money maze” and detailing the recipients of its grants.

Yet, CMD itself has accepted donations from a donor advised fund. CMD received a $520,000 grant from the Schwab Charitable Gift Fund—one of the nation’s largest donor-advised funds.

Progressive Bias

One of CMD’s common tactics is to point out instances where businesses might be behind the funding of advocacy campaigns or non-profits and use those donations as proof that the public should not trust the campaign or organization’s information. CMD has created a series of “exposed” pages on SourceWatch dedicated to unveiling the funders of free-market organizations.

Yet CMD doesn’t turn the same critical eye on left-leaning groups.

  • CMD frequently cites the work of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank funded by labor unions, without noting the union connection. CMD has also publicized work from the National Employment Law Project, another union-backed liberal think tank, without noting the organization’s funders.
  • In addition to the Economic Policy Institute and National Employment Law Project, other liberal advocacy organizations such as the George Soros-funded Democracy Alliance and the Center for American Progress lack “exposed” profiles in any of CMD’s publications though none fully disclose their donors.
  • CMD has invested considerable time in attacking the American Legislative Exchange Council. Yet the Progressive States Network, a liberal equivalent of ALEC, has received no attention from CMD despite performing many of the same tasks and refusing to disclose its donors.
  • One of CMD’s project partners, ProgressNow, received direct funding from the same “donor advised funds” so derided by CMD. In 2006, ProgressNow received funding from the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund, a donor advised trust, and has received more than $250,000 from labor unions.

When asked about this contradiction—where funding from conservative organizations is suspect but is acceptable from liberal organizations–Graves argued “The question of conservative funders versus liberal funders, I think, is a matter of false equivalency… Quite frankly a number of these (corporate donors) like Koch Industries … they’re advancing not just an ideological agenda but an agenda that helps advance the bottom line of their corporate interests.”

However, the very same corporations criticized by Graves for backing free-market friendly ALEC also donated to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which has worked to pass legislation in direct opposition to ALEC’s positions. In 2012, Bloomberg found that 13 of 22 members of ALEC’s private enterprise board contributed at least $2 million to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.